WASHINGTON: The Space Force says risks in its effort to develop software for a new radar to survey deep space are actually decreasing — some six months after the Government Accountability Office (GAO) fretted that it was “immature” and potentially a source of program delay.
The ground-based Deep Space Advanced Radar Capability (DARC) is being developed to improve the service’s ability to track satellites and dangerous space junk in Geosynchronous Orbit (GEO, at the outer edge of Earth’s orbit), including in the bright daytime when satellites usually elude radar. The end goal is three sites — one in the Indo-Pacific, one in Europe and one in the United States.
The Space Force’s acquisition arm, Space Systems Command (SSC), successfully demonstrated last December a small-scale version of DARC at White Sands Missile Field in New Mexico. Northrop Grumman in February won a contract worth $341 million to develop the first site in the Indo-Pacific, via the Space Enterprise Consortium, which is managed by the National Security Technology Accelerator (NSTXL). The contract vehicle is a Middle Tier Acquisition (MTA) Other Transaction Authority, with the company expected to complete delivery by September 2025.
GAO reviewed DARC in its annual assessment of Defense Department acquisition programs, released last week, and took critical aim at some facets. This includes the fact that the program “has not completed other key activities to establish a sound business case, such as formal assessments of technology and schedule risks,” the GAO report said.
In particular, GAO had worries about risks to the program’s planned 2025 delivery of the first of the three planned radar sites due to issues with software development, which according to the report, already has faced challenges including increased costs. But SSC and Northrop Grumman told Breaking Defense all is well.
“Software development efforts are on track and have seen no cost increase. In fact, more software reuse from other fielded programs is being applied to Deep Space Advanced Radar Capability (DARC) than originally anticipated so the risk associated with software development has decreased,” an SSC spokesperson said in an email.
Kevin Giammo, director space of Northrop Grumman Space System’s Surveillance & Environmental Intelligence Operating Unit, concurred: “Our software development efforts are on track, including for our activities to adapt existing radar and algorithmic software from existing systems.”
The GAO report also fretted “the Space Force intends to begin construction of sites 2 and 3 before completion of site 1 and expected attainment of technology maturity. Initiating construction of follow-on sites before first demonstrating the basic capabilities associated with site 1 compounds existing risks.”
The SSC spokesperson, however, stressed the need to move rapidly on the DARC prototype effort.
“The threat necessitates we build the full DARC system at speed. The successful DARC Technology Demonstration built at White Sands Missile Range and demonstrated in summer 2021 was a significant accomplishment in demonstrating this capability, buying down technical risk for the program, and validating the Government Reference Architecture (GRA) that is being used to build all three DARC sites,” the spokesperson wrote.
Space Force asked for almost $231 million in its fiscal 2023 budget request for the program. The service’s budget justification documents, or j-books, say that DARC Site 1 will cost a total of $866.3 million, including research and development and procurement of prototypes, but caveat that the site isn’t actually fully funded across the five-year Future Years Defense Program (FYDP).
This is potentially a problem down the road for DARC, because according to a spokesperson for the Office of the Secretary of Defense, DoD policy is that MTAs need to be fully funded across the FYDP — with space acquisition and budgeting overseen by the Department of the Air Force.
“The Department of the Air Force is assessing all options to address the funding shortfalls for MTA programs including additional funding in a future budget request, performance trades based on technical maturity, or transition to alternative pathways,” the j-books say.
However, the SSC spokesperson seemed to refute the service’s budget language.
“DARC Site 1 is a Rapid Prototype under MTA and provides an Operational Leave Behind Capability once fielded. DARC Site 1 is fully funded and the acquisition strategy is still being determined for DARC Sites 2 and 3.”
Finally, the GAO report raised some concern that the ongoing Space Force negotiations with partner nations for siting DARC facilities might not be completed in time to meet the current schedule. However, the SSC spokesperson said this isn’t an issue.
“There is great commitment on the part of our partners in Europe and Pacific who see the need and urgency for a DARC capability. Negotiations are on track to finalize the agreement by April 2023,” the spokesperson wrote.